Welcome to Career Watch, a vocational checkup of top actors and directors, and those who hope to get there. In this edition we take on Jessica Lange, who’s at the height of powers at age 68, revealing depths of emotion as fading Golden Age star Joan Crawford in FX’s mighty Emmy contender “Feud: Bette and Joan.”
Bottom Line: Jessica Lange has matured from a gorgeous movie ingenue to a theater and screen character actress with extraordinary range who keeps surprising audiences with what she can make them feel.
Career Peaks: From the start, Lange impressed people even when she was in the clutches of the Dino De Laurentiis incarnation of “Kong Kong.” She followed that up with her performance as a sexy waitress who seduces Jack Nicholson on a kitchen table in Bob Rafelson’s “The Postman Always Rings Twice” (1981) and with a weighty dramatic role as the depressed actress Frances Farmer in “Frances” (1982). She channeled country crooner Patsy Cline in Karel Reisz’s “Sweet Dreams” (1985), took on a lawyer who uncovers her father’s past in “Music Box” (1989), and expressed sheer terror in Martin Scorsese’s “Cape Fear” (1991).
Lange felt lucky to have come up during what she called the “golden period of women’s films, like ‘Unmarried Woman’ and ‘Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,'” she recently told IndieWire. “Hollywood changed for five minutes and then went back to being the boys’ club.”
Assets: Born in Minnesota, the athletic one-time Wilhelmina model can play anyone, from a flat-voweled Midwesterner to a decked-out urban sophisticate, and handle any genre from heart-tugging drama (“Losing Isaiah”) and full-out comedy (“Tootsie”) to nail-biting thriller (“Cape Fear”).
Biggest Problem: Lange doesn’t give a hoot about commerciality, so she’ll take a flier on rich, challenging roles for Julie Taymor (Shakespeare’s “Titus”) or Rupert Wyatt (Mark Wahlberg’s venal mother in “The Gambler” ).
Awards Attention: Nominated for the Oscar six times, Lange is one of 24 performers to win an Oscar, Emmy and Tony. She won the 1983 Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Sydney Pollack’s gender comedy “Tootsie” (the same year she was nominated as Best Actress for “Frances”) and the 1995 Best Actress Oscar as the desperately fragile military wife in “Blue Sky” (1994). In television, she landed the Outstanding Lead Actress in a Movie Emmy as Big Edie in true riches-to-rags story “Grey Gardens” (2009), twice took home the Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries Emmy for Ryan Murphy’s “American Horror Story” (2012 and 2014), and on stage won the Best Leading Actress in a Play Tony for “Long Day’s Journey into Night” in 2016.
Latest Contender: Lange could win another Emmy as Joan Crawford in Ryan Murphy’s lauded “Feud: Bette and Joan.” Astonishingly, Lange makes viewers care about this strident, controlling, Machiavellian aging actress who connives with columnist Hedda Hopper (Judy Davis) to maneuver against her Oscar magnet rival Bette Davis (Emmy-nominated Susan Sarandon), her costar in horror picture “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?”
Murphy, who had taken Lange to two Emmys on “American Horror Story,” at first considered a two-hour movie, but opted for an eight-episode mini-series. While the production started off in sequence with the first three scripts, soon they were jumping chronology as new scripts came in.
“It made all the difference that we had eight hours to explore these characters,” said Lange, “to really move back and forth in time. ‘The Visitation’ Episode 8, saying goodbye to her daughter and grandchildren in that last fantasy, has some of the most touching writing and scenes I’ve seen. I don’t think we could have done it, limited to two hours.”
Unusually, Lange took on the role without knowing how she felt about Crawford, an actress she had watched growing up without forming a bond with her. “I usually start projects already connected on some emotional level,” she said. “In this case, I was starting at neutral ground, and didn’t know what was going to unfold, how I was going to feel about her or what I was going to discover. This is one case that just took me by surprise.”
When Lange dug into Crawford’s back story, she was gobsmacked. “You are tasked as an actor to find the emotional reasons behind everything,” she said. “The depth of empathy I found in myself for her came from reading about her childhood, her past, what she was up against and her extraordinary fortitude. When I imagined that devastating poverty she grew up in, with all the greatest childhood fears — abandonment, abuse, poverty, being unloved — everything fell into place like a jigsaw puzzle.”
Lange was amazed by the energy Crawford put into her self-creation. “It was exhausting,” she said. “Taking that on for 40 or so years. I understood why she did it, I understood her incredible fear and anxiety and frustration that at any moment all that could be stripped away. But the main departure point in every scene for me, in every moment I played, was to start with who she really was, this child with a Dickensian childhood, from San Antonio, Texas. Everything from there made emotional sense to me.”
Powerful gossip columnist Hedda Hopper and Crawford stuck together because “they both gave things up to be in Hollywood,” said Lange. “Hopper always viewed Davis as an outsider from the New England stage. They were people of that Golden Age of Hollywood who had a profound affinity for one another. Maybe they were two tough broads. Joan enjoyed the power Hedda wielded, and would do just about anything to stay on her good side. She was protecting that commodity Joan Crawford, because of what she had at stake, what she could lose.”
The biggest challenge was the physical transformation into Crawford: While Sarandon has the same shape face and eyes as Davis, Lange really doesn’t look like Crawford, except for her high cheekbones. “There’s very little resemblance between me and Crawford,” said Lange. “I didn’t take six molars out.” She requested a prosthetic nose, “anything to bring to mind her face when you look at me,” but her makeup team talked her out of it.
So she settled for the signature features: the molded broad eyebrows and lips. Murphy also cautioned Lange to “learn to be still,” she said. “I’m constantly in motion. That was an interesting approach to her. Watch her interviews and even her acting: in every close-up she’s very much controlled, she doesn’t gesture a great deal. Working on that led me into something I didn’t anticipate, just through her control and her stillness.”
The most exquisite costume was Crawford’s Oscar dress. “We did as close a replica of Edith Head’s dress as possible,” Lange said. “It was unbearable to wear, so heavy, it weighed 50 pounds. Everything ached, I’d have to zip it down to take the weight off my upper back and shoulders. Everything we did: the silver dust in the hair, silver nails. I just giggled: how did she come up with it? Positively brilliant! But the discomfort was extraordinary.”
Latest Misfire: Andy Tennant’s old broad comedy “Wild Oats” opposite Shirley MacLaine, about two women on a joyride fueled by an unexpected life insurance check of $5 million ($242,000 worldwide).
Current Gossip: Sadly, Lange is grieving the loss of her 27-year partner Sam Shepard, about whom she has not uttered a word since his death from ALS. (She gave this interview just before he died.) They met on the set of “Frances,” and stayed together from 1982 to 2009, raising their two children in upstate New York. Lange was married to photographer Paco Grande from 1970 to 1981, but left him for director Bob Fosse. That was followed by ballet star Mikhail Baryshnikov, who is the father of her daughter Aleksandra (Shura), who was six months old when Lange met Shepard.
Next Step: After a very busy few years, Lange is waiting to see what juicy role Ryan Murphy cooks up for her next, and still hopes to costar with Naomi Watts in producer Jon Avnet and director Gia Coppola’s indie drama “The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll.” Written by Merritt Johnson, the project is about the bizarre life of the late children’s author Dare Wright.
Career Advice: Lange should continue to lean into theater and television, where older women’s roles are most plentiful and varied. “This is a very exciting time,” she said. “I’m thrilled that these opportunities opened up to me that are not there in film.”
Like the mature Crawford and Davis in Hollywood, “what I have felt profoundly is the ageism,” said Lange. “Because I could track when my career opportunities really diminished. In the 70s and 80s, a whole group of actors and actresses of my generation did great work, got great parts, and it came to an end. It was a perfect storm as the business also changed in the 90s, where it became tentpole projects and comic books as we hit our 50s and 60s. I remember Sidney Pollack saying to me, ‘this isn’t going to last, this middle ground of filmmaking where actors do good work and get paid, filling that ground between the small independent and the huge summer blockbuster.’ He was prescient about that. Within a decade those films disappeared, the kinds of films I had spent decades doing.”